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In the Belly of the Beast: New documentary film, Lioness, portrays women in combat

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"In late 2003, U.S. Army commanders in Iraq created a program that sent female support soldiers out on missions with all-male combat units. They were called Lionesses. U.S. policy bans women from units whose primary mission is direct ground combat."

—from the award-winning documentary film, Lioness

In Lioness, filmmakers Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers follow five female soldiers whose lives are awash in a sea of conflict. The soldiers are mothers, daughters and wives; women who must balance their personal lives with their military careers. They each joined the military for all of the same reasons men do: to get out of small-town life, to see the world, to pay for college, to serve their country. And though one of the these women reached high rank and some worked in highly specialized units, unlike their male counterparts, they were not trained for direct combat. But in each case, that's exactly what they saw.

Though each woman and her story is fascinating, it is the story of SPC Shannon Morgan, mechanic, First Battalion, that is somehow most compelling. Growing up in the tiny trailer-house town of Mena, Ark., Morgan's childhood was turbulent, tempered only by the loving grandparents who raised her. The film opens with Morgan, the tattoo circling her arm visible as she raises a rifle to her shoulder. An echoing "pow" is followed by a shot of a large turtle, now dead, bobbing in a marshy pond. The film follows Morgan at home with as she recounts her experiences in Iraq. Throughout, her emotions bubble up, leaving viewers to wonder if—or when—they might explode to the surface. But it is for just that reason that she and McLagan have toured the country—including stops in Boise and Mountain Home—screening the film and speaking with audiences, often made up of military personnel, about the effects of war.

Morgan, a short blonde woman with a sweet smile and haunted eyes, described what a Lioness is. "It's just basically a name they came up with ... when they saw the need for females to accompany males in Iraq. Males can't touch the Iraqi women. We have to abide by all their beliefs," she said. "[The Iraqis] started hiding detonators and bombs on their women because they knew the [American soldiers] couldn't touch them, forcing the need to have female military accompany them. My battalion commander coined that phrase."

The Lionesses were formed to follow Marine troops in Iraq at the back of a "stack," a unit sent in to buildings and homes to search for weapons and insurgents. Because these women were not trained in hand-to-hand or ground combat, they were in as much danger—if not more—than their male counterparts. During a 2006 Lioness reunion, the five female soldiers watch a History Channel documentary on the 2003 fighting in Ramadi. The documentary does not mention the role of the Lionesses.

"You and I were on that one, weren't we?" one Lioness asks.

"Yeah, that's when the Marines were coming in, and they were first hit with an IED [improvised explosive device]," answers another. "And we went after a couple of guys who did it."

It's a chilling example of a whole new layer of the military secrecy, but one that even the government may be willing to revisit. Lioness was filmed with cooperation from the American military, both male and female high-ranking officers are featured, and McLagan said even the Pentagon has seen it.

Lioness is a frank look at the personal and professional lives of five female soldiers and their struggles to marry the two. McLagan said, though, that she never saw the women as victims and they are never portrayed as such. "This film is about inserting women back into our history," she said. Morgan, too, who is candid throughout the film, expressing raw emotion that is difficult to watch, has a hope for what the film may accomplish.

"It's important, when you've been through what I've been through, to ask for help," Morgan said. "I'm glad I did it, if one person [after watching the film] gets help."

Lioness shows Tuesday, Nov. 11, 10:30 p.m., on Idaho Public Television as part of the "Independent Lens" series.

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